2016: A (writing) year in review.

Globally speaking, I’m beyond ready for 2016 to beat a hasty retreat. Seriously.

Professionally, though, I’m still marveling at what a great year it was. Seriously.

I was fortunate to collaborate with a number of longstanding and new clients, broadening and deepening my portfolio of writing about food and wellness. My work fell evenly into two camps: writing for publication and online marketing content. The subjects were inspiring, the teams fun to work with, the finished projects stuff I’m proud of. A few high points:

A visit to one of my top clients. After working together — closely, on lots and lots of projects — for two years, I traveled to connect in person with my colleagues at the Produce Marketing Association. We’ve worked together to promote dozens of global events for growers/suppliers/retailers in the fresh produce and floral industry. It was so neat to meet the PMA team face-to-face. And 2017 looks to hold even greater collaboration.

Giving life to local food coverage. Call me old-fashioned, but I still love reading the local newspaper over my morning coffee. And my recipe file is full of old clippings from newspapers’ food sections. So when editor Amy Wilson asked if I’d regularly contribute to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s weekly food coverage, I jumped at the chance. I got to write about the pleasures of eating breakfast for dinner, shared delicious ways to enjoy summer tomatoes, and declared that making your own butter is just about the best thing ever. Coolest encounter of the year: Running into an Enquirer reader, toting my recipe for herb and spice cashews that she’d cut from the paper, as she was buying the nuts at Dean’s Mediterranean Market. Local food — and local media — for the win!

Tackling a new medium: recipe videos. You know those 1-minute recipe videos you see in your Facebook feed all the time? Turns out, those take about 2 hours to film and are a whole lot of fun to create. Working with Curiosity Advertising and their client, The Christ Hospital, we’re rolling out a series of quick recipe videos.

Supporting local food producers, farmers and retailers. Serving as editor of Edible Ohio Valley remains a passion and pleasure, as we get to tell the stories of people who are working hard to bring beautiful, healthful food to our tables here in Cincinnati. One of my favorite stories to write this year was a feature on farmers’ markets and their importance to our community, economy and our collective health.

Here’s hoping you had a productive and fulfilling 2016, and that 2017 will bring you more of the same!

Save

New work: Christ Hospital wellness site.

My food writing work hits the sweet spot when the subject intersects at healthy and local. So my new collaboration with The Christ Hospital and agency Curiosity Advertising is right in my kitchen, so to speak.

We’re working together to spotlight local food — producers, farmers’ markets, seasonal flavors — and encouraging the Christ Hospital community to cook and eat healthful foods. In addition to a new series of recipe videos — SUPER FUN! — I am writing online content around healthy cooking and eating. My subjects so far include a feature on local winter farmers’ markets, strategies for stocking your pantry to make home cooking easier, and ‘locavore’ New Years Eve party ideas. Take a look at some of the work:

New work: Healthy Living News for Meijer

I recently wrapped up work on a campaign for Meijer called Healthy Living News: I contributed content about wellness, healthy foods and lifestyle tips to this in-store consumer magazine. Working with the creative team at IN Marketing Services, we created four bimonthly publications of about 20 pages each. Take a look!

Meijer HLN SO cover

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.03.11 PM
Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.03.48 PMScreen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.05.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.01.51 PM

The creative benefits of puttering.

garden toolA couple of weeks ago, when the weather wasn’t so goshdarn steamy and my workload was summer-light, I wandered outside to take a look at the vegetable garden before sitting down at the computer for the day.

An hour and a half later, I realized that I’d been completely sucked into The Puttering Zone.

You’ve had this experience, right? What starts with a simple task, like putting something away in your workbench, or deadheading a few flowers in the landscape or stashing a box of crackers on the shelf … winds up as 90 minutes of tinkering or gardening or cleaning out the pantry. One little thing leads to another, and without much thinking about it, you’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit.

Or not. The pleasure of puttering is in the act itself, not necessarily the outcome (though that can be rewarding, too).

After futzing around in the garden for awhile, it occurred to me that this kind of activity might be really good for us. Turns out, puttering is good for both the body and the brain:

In one study by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, which tracked 60-year-old men and women over 12 years, found that people who had an active daily life that included “non-exercise” — physical activity like “gardening, car maintenance, blackberry picking or DIY projects” — had a 30% lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to people who were sedentary.

Another study by a team from Rush University Medical Center found that similar activity — described in a news release as “activities like cooking, washing the dishes, playing cards …” — may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Three aspects of puttering I think are beneficial particularly to those of us who work in a creative field:

  1. Puttering has an absent-minded quality to it. Performing simple tasks like pulling weeds or reorganizing tools on a pegboard, and moving from one task to another without planning, doesn’t require much concentration. Our minds are free to wander, to make connections between things stashed away in our brains, to generate ideas. (I’ve written about how we can coax ideas along in those seemingly serendipitous moments.) And in fact, the idea for this newsletter emerged as I was on my hands and knees working the soil with a cultivator.
  2. Puttering is one of many antidotes to sitting in a chair all day. The physicality of futzing around helps with balance and coordination. Just moving around is good for us. It’s what our bodies are programmed to do. (Too, I’ve written about how physical activity fuels creativity.)
  3. You can’t put “puttering” on your to-do list. It just happens. You go out to get the newspaper and, voila! Next thing you know, and hour has passed, and your car’s wheels are bright and shiny. Puttering is the antithesis of the to-do list. It forces spontaneity. This is a good thing.

I did indeed come back indoors and sit down at the computer, at which point I opened a Pages document and sketched a few notes that became this newsletter. I recall having a much brighter outlook on my day, having accomplished something and enjoyed myself in unexpected fashion.

I think we all need to make more space in our lives for puttering, don’t you?

Healthy fast food: how much of a pipe dream is it?

I’ve always liked Mark Bittman’s recipes, but I’m glad he’s moved over to the Opinion pages at The New York Times. He’s joining the voices of Marion Nestle (whom I heard speak recently, a real thrill) and Michael Pollan and others (and why aren’t there more of those others??) in advocating for serious change to our agroindustrial food system. Amen.

There are two fronts for this effort toward change: at home and in restaurants. Bittman’s latest story for The New York Times Magazine addresses restaurant food—particularly fast food.

What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists. It’s a place where something like a black-bean burger piled with vegetables and baked sweet potato fries — and, hell, maybe even a vegan shake — is less than 10 bucks and 800 calories (and way fewer without the shake). If I could order and eat that in 15 minutes, I’d be happy, and I think a lot of others would be, too.

His conclusion: Yes, healthful fast food is possible—and it’s gaining traction. Healthful fast food won’t be as cheap as the Dollar Menu (of the three—fast, cheap, healthful—it seems we can have two). Small fast-casual restaurants in California (natch) are leading the way. But there’s hope: Chipotle started out with just one outlet, and look at where they’ve come.

Read more of Bittman’s article: Yes, Healthful Fast Food is Possible. But Edible?

Fast food: Why we need to slow down

We eat in our cars, at our desks, on the go, in front of the TV. We eat drive-through, take-out, delivered, packaged and prepared meals.

We need to slow … down.

Consumer trends around the globe show that over the past three decades people are purchasing more prepared foods at the grocery and eating out more. It’s projected that we’ll spend a record amount at restaurants in 2011. We’re consuming an increasing number of calories and bigger portions. Simultaneously, we’re getting less healthy.

While debates rage over the food industry’s contribution to our growing waistlines and our resulting health problems, the bottom line is this: What we eat, where we eat and how we eat are all 100% under our control. We can choose to eat a fast-food lunch on the go (spending that extra $6 and adding 150 calories to our day). We can throw a frozen meal in the microwave and call it dinner.

Or, we can dedicate an hour of the day to cook and enjoy a meal with our families. We can spend a few minutes in the morning to eat a healthy breakfast. Eating sensibly doesn’t take much time or money, but it does require you to make a conscious decision to do so. Here are some steps you can take:

Respect food. Prepare it with love, enjoy it with mindfulness, use it to your healthy benefit.

Shop your local farmers’ markets. Studies on both coasts have shown that farmers’ market produce is comparably priced to grocery produce—and it’s much fresher, it’s better for the local economy and it’s more sustainable.

Be mindful of what you put in the shopping cart. Why buy salad dressing that’s full of high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives, when you can make your own salad dressing for much less money and better health?

Be careful about coupons. Buy-one-get-one on PopTarts seems like a good deal. But is it? Is that coupon prompting you to buy something you don’t want or need?

Read more about these and other steps you can take toward your own slow-food movement and eating healthier today in my article for SparkPeople.com: Why a Fast-Food Nation Needs a Slow-Food Movement.

New work: Recipes and blog posts for SparkRecipes.com

I love collaborating with my editors at SparkPeople.com and SparkRecipes.com, and here’s why: Their goal, like mine, is to help people who perhaps don’t love to cook learn to prepare healthy food for themselves and their families. My work with Spark presents an unusual challenge—unlike readers of, say, Edible Ohio Valley magazine (to which I contribute the Cultivators column), Spark-ers aren’t necessarily devoted cooks or foodies. I have to write with Spark members’ unique needs in mind: They want quick, easy recipes for food that tastes great and supports their health and fitness goals.

My work for Spark includes a new series of Power Foods articles that dig deep into the nutritional profiles of common fruits and vegetables and offer simple ways to prepare them.

Why Potatoes Are Good for You—This Power Foods article extols the virtues of the poor potato, so maligned by low-carb diet gurus. Potatoes lend themselves to unhealthful preparations, like deep frying and topping with sour cream and butter. But all the specialty varieties are fantastic when prepared simply.

I also regularly contribute a series of 10 Ways With … articles for DailySpark.com.

10 Ways to Enjoy Tomatoes—This article gives Spark members a variety of quick and easy ways to cook with this summer garden staple.

Another ongoing assignment: Hack the grocery store, with a series of Better Than Store-Bought recipes that let Spark members make homemade versions of supermarket staples, with an emphasis on recipes that are healthier or less expensive.

Fresh no-cook tomato sauce—If you still have access to ripe local tomatoes, either in your backyard garden or at the farmers’ market, then you’ll want to make this. I’ve tried other fresh tomato sauces to toss with pasta, but this one is different: You warm a bit of olive oil and drizzle that over peeled and diced tomatoes. The warm oil gently heats the tomatoes and deepens their flavor.

Chewy-Crunchy Granola Bars—So many store-bought granola bars include high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors or preservatives. My version of homemade chewy-crunchy granola bars offers great texture, healthful whole grains and nuts, and tasty dried fruit.

The power of our food choices

Regardless of our politics, I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel completely disconnected, misrepresented and dismayed by government. It can make us feel powerless: After all, what individual can affect changes in the policies and systems that work against us? Big Money and Big Industry and Big Pharma and Big Ag shout louder and wield more influence and therefore shape the country and society and economy we all live in.

At a food and farming event, I glanced a bit of hope, and it’s this: We CAN make a difference by the small choices we make, especially when it comes to food.

Earlier this year, I attended the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association and, while I’m not a farmer or grower or producer, it was amazing to be in the company of those folks. I attended sessions about season extension, cover crops, companion planting, seasonal eating (other sessions dealt with topics like business planning and marketing for small farms, large-scale composting, raising livestock, fracking and Monsanto and GMOs). Over and over, I heard the mantra that the food community is at the heart of a movement (or revolution or whatever you want to call it) that can reshape our economy, our health, our industry, our environment, our communities and our relationships.

Now, before you think I’ve gone and drunk the Kool-aid, I’ll admit that I am already part of the choir to which the event was preaching. I’m not a farmer, but I know that my health and wellbeing depends on farmers doing their work with integrity and care. I love good, healthy, local food, and so I benefit from their labor.

The most important takeaway I gleaned (pun intended) from the conference was this from Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety: We are not consumers. That which consumes, destroys. We are creators. And with every choice we make about our food, we can create one of two futures: 1) an industrialized, modified, commoditized, adulterated food system, or 2) a localized, holistic, humane, just, biodiverse food system. WE get to decide.

A few other nuggets I jotted in my notebook:

  • Because of poor soil stewardship, in 2008 alone, 2 million acres of Iowa farmland lost 20 or more tons (each!) of topsoil … it all washed down the Mississippi River, carrying with it chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. There’s a huge biological ‘dead zone’ at the Mississippi DeltaThink about this for a sec.
  • Collectively, we’ve invested more than $600 trillion (that’s a ‘T’) in the global derivatives market. The world’s GDP is $65 trillion. Do the math: There’s not enough money to cover those investments—and this complex financial system is incredibly opaque and off-the-radar. We’re making incredibly risky global investments … and yet, the farmer up the road can’t get a loan to buy fencing to house his livestock? WTF?
  • We need to break the physical and psychological disconnect between the industrial food system and our plates. Andrew Kimbrell noted that we’d make very different choices if we could see what goes into making this stuff.
  • Food is the most intimate relationship we have with our environment.

Here’s the thing: We have the power to improve our communities, our economy, our bodies, our planet. We do. We can shape our future simply through the foods we choose to eat ourselves and share with our families and neighbors.

Food for thought: Fuel your brain (and get better ideas)

You’ve heard the phrase ‘starving artist’—but you may not know what a role diet plays in our creative and artistic pursuits. We may think of food as fuel for our bodies, but it charges up our minds, too. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables and nuts have all been shown to assist with brain function.

Healthy vegetables and fruits fuel the body and the brain

Healthy vegetables and fruits fuel the body and the brain

In fact, studies have shown that foods high in antioxidants—like blueberries, plums, strawberries, walnuts, artichokes, kale and spinach—can help boost the brain’s natural cellular repair function and may improve memory. James Joseph, who leads the neuroscience lab at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, wrote in the study, “Weighing just 3 pounds, the brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s total mass, yet it uses up to half of the body’s total oxygen consumed during mental activity. Phytochemicals, together with essential nutrients in foods, provide a health-benefits cocktail of sorts.”

(Or you could get your antioxidants IN a cocktail, like this Blueberry Muddle.)

Other studies have shown the value of Omega-3 fatty acids in promoting our mental capacity and ability. And if you’re considering a fast-food chicken sandwich and side of fries for lunch, know this: Diets high in saturated and trans fats can negatively affect our cognitive ability.

Tips for feeding your brain and satisfying your body:

Don’t skip lunch. Even if you’re cruising on a creative project, be sure to fuel up mid-day. See Worth Eating below for links to a couple of wonderful make-ahead salads packed with brain-happy whole grains and veggies.

Snack smart. Take a quick break to eat a piece of fruit and a handful of healthy roasted almonds. My favorite pick-me-up afternoon snack is a sliced honeycrisp apple with 1 Tbsp. of natural peanut or almond butter.

Eat whole foods. As author Michael Pollan and nutrition advocate Marion Nestle advocate, avoid packaged foods that make health claims. Get your fiber from whole grains, your antioxidants from fruits and vegetables. Nutrients delivered in pills or supplements work in isolation and lose the benefit of being in their natural form and consumed in combination with other nutrients.

Drink more water. If you’re feeling sluggish or hungry, drink a glass of water before you reach for another cup of coffee. Fatigue is a sign of dehydration. Drinking water throughout the day helps nutrients circulate through your body, including to your brain.

See Worth Reading below for a link to more information on how diet impacts creativity.

“If you think of the brain as an engine, it’s going to run better on high-grade fuel. That’s what a brain-healthy diet provides.” — Paul E. Bendheim, neurologist

WORTH READING

The Diet, Exercise and Creativity Connection: Learn more about how what you eat affects what (and how) you think.

Best Brain Foods for Brain Function, Health and Memory: From WebMD, here’s a list of brain-boosting “superfoods” to stock at home and in the office.

Worth Eating

Lentil Salad with Chard and Tomatoes: This healthy salad is packed with protein, legumes and leafy greens, which can provide energy and nutrients to keep you going. Make a batch on the weekend and pack it for an easy workday lunch.

Delicious Cooking with Whole Grains: A roundup of wholesome grains (like quinoa and farro) that make terrific bases for hearty and healthy salads and side dishes.

 

Food for thought: Creativity (un)leashed

Some people come up with new ideas in the shower. Others keep notepads on the nightstand so they can jot down dream-inspired brainstorms. The athletes I know tell me they mentally chew on problems while they’re swimming laps or running miles. Albert Einstein said he envisioned his theory of relativity while riding his bicycle.

Me? I do my best thinking at the long end of the leash. I’ve always had breakthroughs when I’m out for a walk with the dog, first with our beloved Wrigley and now with our dear Peroni (both goofy terrier mixes, if you’re interested).

For the past 15 years, as my writing career and pet ownership coincided, I’ve discovered that I can crack the toughest assignments if I get away from the keyboard and get out the leash. Inspiration invariably strikes when I’m out pounding the pavement with the pup. Briskly walking to the park or to our little town square is when I find the cranial real-estate to tackle a problem or think through a worry. I’ve mentally drafted posts for my food blog, writes4food.com. I’ve developed recipe ideas, cracked tough client projects and sketched out presentations while cruising the neighborhood, Peroni in the lead. In fact, I’ve come to view our daily lunchtime walk as billable time.

making time for creativity to happen

There’s a common thread among these different places or times when we come up with new ideas seemingly at random—in the shower, in the pool, on a walk. First, we’re away from our desks. Which means we’re away from the project at hand, there’s no empty page or blank screen staring at us. There’s no pressure to create immediately.

Second, our minds are on something else. The problem we need to solve is tucked somewhere deep in the cerebellum, but it’s not in the forefront of our thoughts. As we circle back to it when our brains are more at ease, that’s when we tend to find solutions.

Third, there’s a physical element to the mix. Your body’s occupied and your brain’s occupied—on your breathing, or on watching the dog lunge after a squirrel—and you’re able to think more clearly. My friend, designer and avid cyclist Luke Mysse, says he routinely pulls to the side of the road and uses his iPhone’s Voice Memo app to record ideas that hit while he’s riding.

learn more

The Neuroscience of Imagination: Aerobic Exercise Stimulates Creative Thinking
In his post on Psychology Today’s “The Athlete’s Way” blog, Christopher Bergland writes about how the nearly “mindless” state that athletes get into during, say, a long run can facilitate creative breakthroughs. Fascinating stuff.

Superfluidity: Peak Performance Beyond the State of Flow
Another excellent Bergland post from “The Athlete’s Way,” this one describes the physical and mental aspects of ‘flow’—that state when you lose yourself in what you’re doing.

share your ideas for making creativity happen

So, what are you likely to be doing when inspiration strikes? Please share your best tips for staying inspired here!